Canadians are united. It's the politicians that are the problem
On the surface it appears Canadians are sick of each other.
In 2018 there were talks of separation, tensions boiling over unfair transfer payments, massive public rallies, opposition to development and a mini-trade war.
But the problem isn’t with the people; Canadians are united. The problem is with politicians. A core role of government is dispute avoidance and resolution. Yet, politicians are ducking accountability for their failures on this front and pitting Canadians against each other.
Over 150 years ago, Canadian founder George Brown called for Confederation to “throw down all barriers between the provinces — to make a citizen of one, citizen of the whole.”
Contrast that call for unity with Quebec Premier François Legault’s recent remark that “there is no social acceptance for a pipeline that would pass through Quebec territory.” He went on to deride Alberta oil as “dirty energy.” Unsurprisingly, Legault’s comments ignited blowback from Albertans. Alberta’s former leader of the opposition, Brian Jean, fired back. “Fine. There is no social acceptability in Alberta for any Quebec product whatsoever. Let the boycott begin.”
But here’s the kicker: the majority of Quebecers don’t agree with their premier.
According to a Leger poll, two-thirds of Quebecers prefer to get their oil from Western Canada. Nor are Quebecers against pipeline development: 45 per cent believe pipelines are the safest means of transporting oil, far ahead of the other options (14 per cent for tanker trucks, 13 per cent for trains and nine per cent for boats).
The majority of Quebecers want their fellow Canadians to be able to find well-paying jobs and prefer Western Canadian oil to products shipped from such countries as Algeria, Nigeria and those in the Middle East.
Rather than everyday Quebecers, it’s political elites who have “no social acceptability” for Alberta’s energy or a pipeline passing through the province. And this is just one example of politicians creating animosity and passing up opportunities for shared prosperity.
B.C.’s politicians committed to using “every tool available to the new government to stop the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.” So far, they’ve been successful. Similar to the story in Quebec, the majority of British Columbians, 55 per cent, support the Trans Mountain project. Without government meddling, it’s difficult to conceive that reasonable people couldn’t figure out a way to get Alberta energy through B.C. and create significant opportunities for both provinces.
With the Alberta government’s retaliatory ban on B.C. wine and threats to “turn off the taps” on the West Coast’s oil supply, both governments created strife between neighbours who would not otherwise come into conflict.
It’s not just large resource projects that have been fumbled. Governments have even managed to divide Canadians over beer. To this day adults are still punished if they bring a few too many cases of beer across provincial borders.
“Premiers agree there is an urgent need to accelerate the pace of reducing barriers to trade within Canada,” solemnly states the communique from a recent first ministers’ meeting. But when the archaic alcohol limits were challenged in the courts, most provincial governments intervened to maintain this trade barrier.
Again, here’s the kicker: the majority of Canadians want a unified market. An Ipsos poll shows that 94 per cent of Canadians believe people should be able to transport legally purchased products between provinces. If governments truly wanted to unify the Canadian market, all they would have to do is stop putting up barriers.
Make no mistake: Canadians want to be unified. It’s the politicians who are doing the dividing. Even in Alberta where tensions are high, the majority of residents don’t want to separate and consider themselves “Canadians first, and Albertans second.”
Canadians are angry. But we can’t misdirect our anger at each other. Instead, we have to hold our elected officials accountable to realize Brown’s dream of unity.
The column was originally published in the National Post on January 14, 2019.